Greece has launched its tourism season amid a competitive scramble across the Mediterranean to lure tourists emerging from lockdowns.
he European Union has yet to roll out its mobile phone-friendly travel pass system but southern member states, driven deeper into debt by the pandemic and highly dependent on tourism revenues, are not waiting.
Croatia has already reopened, as has Cyprus, and they were joined on Friday by Greece, where residents were allowed to leave home without an electronic permit for the first time in six months.
Last year, the number of visitors to Greece plummeted by 78.2% to 7.4 million – from a record 34 million in 2019 – according to official data, with a corresponding drop in tourism revenues.
Greece is hoping to claw back half the 2019 visitor level.
It has vowed to finish vaccinating its entire island population over the next six weeks and will even waive test requirements for tourists who have received vaccines made in Russia and China that are not approved for use domestically.
Other Mediterranean countries are also looking for an edge.
Malta is promising visitors vouchers to go diving and cash rebates to high-end hotel customers.
In Turkey, visitors from abroad have been exempt from stay-at-home orders applying to Turks, thus enjoying an empty Istanbul, and little-populated beach resorts.
Starting on Monday, travellers from China, Britain, Australia and 13 other countries will be allowed in without even having to present a negative Covid-19 test.
Portugal is the only southern European country to so far make Britain’s green list of quarantine-free destinations.
Travellers in the UK pounced on the news, according to Emma Coulthurst, from holiday price comparison site TravelSupermarket.
“Week-on-week, if you compare all package holiday price comparison searches via TravelSupermarket, the site has seen an 865% increase in searches for package holidays to Portugal,” Ms Coulthurst said.
Tourism industry officials in Portugal reported a surge in bookings and inquiries from Britain, despite last-minute concerns over whether domestic lockdown rules would be relaxed before the updated UK travel list takes effect on Monday.
In neighbouring Spain, trade and tourism minister Reyes Maroto said her government was in “constant” consultations with Britain to try to have its travel status upgraded.
Some 18 million UK holidaymakers travelled to Spain in 2019.
Italy is dropping a five-day quarantine requirement for travellers from the EU, Britain and Israel from Sunday, but many in the hospitality industry are still bracing for another tough year.
“I think (tourism) is going to increase but very slowly. For this year we have to accept whatever comes,” said Elisabetta Menardi, manager of the Ca’ Foscolo apartment hotel in Venice.
Just a short walk from the famed Rialto Bridge, the hotel is usually fully booked year-round but is currently running at 20% occupancy.
“Normally in January we already get a lot of reservations for the summer. That has stopped. So we don’t know what’s coming now,” Ms Menardi said.
“People make reservations, then they cancel. It’s kind of a dance.”